Set just a few short months after Hurricane Katrina, Treme is about music the same way The Wire was about drugs—in other words, music is a backdrop that affects the lives of all the characters. And in the same way Baltimore was the fabric of The Wire, New Orleans is the fabric of Treme. Actually, it's more so, perhaps because New Orleans has unique characteristics that it doesn't share with any other place on earth. For a lot of people, the question will be: Is Treme BETTER than The Wire? Well, no... It isn't. All things considered, it isn't better than The Wire. But Treme is also only one season deep. And it's a very different show from The Wire in many ways. It's excellent in its own regard, and that should be all that matters.
Whereas The Wire sometimes took on a Shakespearian depth for me—with so many characters struggling for power, and so many tragic ends—Treme feels more like a Robert Altman film; Nashville in particular came to mind as I was watching all the characters and plots interact. I think they may have even mentioned Nashville in the commentary. Treme has a similar focus on music, just in a different city. The plot sometimes stops while musicians play a number in full. Well, that's not fair: In almost every case, the music is the plot. The musical performances are crucial to the show, and in most cases, the performances are the highlights.
That's one of many things Treme has gotten absolutely right: In a show set in New Orleans in which many of the characters are musicians, there NEEDS to be music ingrained in the storytelling. These performances—including Rebirth Brass Band, Kermit Ruffins, Trombone Shorty, Dr. John, countless others—are expertly shot, in most cases with the music recorded live (although actors often mime to another musician's performance). From a technical standpoint alone, the show is dazzling. And with a good system and setup, Treme sounds absolutely incredible. The music surrounds the viewer, and background noise is rendered with perfect detail. Visually, the show has a few murky points, although it took a few near-black scenes for me to understand what was going on: After Katrina, it took a loooong time for electricity to come back in many places. The several pitch-dark scenes were meant to show that New Orleanians had to suffer through a sort of black/brownout for many months after the storm. The daylight scenes are gorgeous, especially when they show the Mardi Gras Indians' costumes.
I'm hesitant to describe the show's plot for two reasons: First, there are simply too many characters and plotlines for a summary to really make any sense. Second, it's fun to discover on your own. I will say that the dramatic arcs often don't curve as much as I wanted them too; some plot threads just simply go on, then end. The suspense is pretty minimal—you won't be compulsively watching one episode after the next the way you might with some other shows. It's really just a study of characters, which in many ways is more satisfying, particularly when actors like Wendell Pierce, Clarke Peters, and Khandi Alexander are responsible. The white characters I simply didn't like as much: Steve Zahn gets more than a little annoying (although he's written that way), and John Goodman's character just doesn't really do much of anything. He starts the season strong, with a bunch of fire in his belly, furious about the failure of the levees, which he considers a manmade catastrophe rather than a natural disaster. But then he limps along for the rest of the season, trying to write his novel, posting rants to YouTube. Goodman is a terrific actor but I thought he was somewhat wasted here. There's also a Dutch musician named Sonny who is just a big ol' dumb jerk. He's a drug addict and lousy musician as well. I hated him, although I think that was the point.
Treme succeeds more as a pageant than anything else. There's plenty to chew on plotwise, though, and whether or not its depiction of post-Katrina New Orleans is 100 percent accurate or not, it's still a remarkably detailed view into the city. There are some bonus features: Five of the 10 episodes have full commentary, and they're great, informative, interesting. However, all 10 episodes have music-specific commentary from a couple of white clowns, one a deejay at Newark's WBGO jazz station and the other at NPR. These guys are meant to be jazz experts, but hearing this pair of pasty twerps smugly ooh and aah over the performances will make you remember why jocks enjoy punching nerds. They are just insufferable, and their commentary is pointless. You won't learn anything about the music that you can't learn from a quick punch in Wikipedia.
There's another bonus feature (on Blu-ray only) which I found puzzling at first but soon grew to appreciate. It's a little pop-up commentary of text, sort of like a glossary, which you can access at any point. You can look up musicians, or characters, or place names, or New Orleans terms mentioned in the dialogue, just to get a reference of what is happening onscreen. The show is not as labyrinthine as The Wire, but the New Orleans references might confuse some who know little about the city or its culture. (For example, if you didn't understand my reference to the costumes of the Mardi Gras Indians a couple paragraphs back.) I found I didn't need the pop ups very often, but those who've never been to New Orleans or who aren't jazz fans could find it very useful.
All told, Treme is a remarkable, rewarding show, and its presentation (at least on the Blu-Ray that I viewed) is flawless. The second season premieres on Sunday, April 24, and since I don't have HBO, I might need to find some way to take in the new episodes. Waiting a full year for the DVD/Blu-Ray to be released seems like an awfully long time. I can't wait, in other words.